The first round of Colombia’s presidential elections on May 27 reflects radically different visions for the future of the country and opposing possibilities for peace. Iván Duque, the right-wing candidate from the Centro Democrático (Democratic Center) party, led with 39% of the vote. Duque is former president Álvaro Uribe’s heir apparent and has called Uribe—who led the opposition to the 2016 peace accords with the FARC—Colombia’s “eternal president.” Progressive former mayor of Bogotá, Gustavo Petro, followed Duque with 25% of the vote, the largest turnout for the Left in Colombian history.
Center-left former mayor of Medellín and former governor of Antioquia Sergio Fajardo closely followed Petro with 24%. The candidates closest to current president Juan Manuel Santos, Germán Vargas Lleras, vice president to Santos during his first term (and the grandson of former president Alberto Lleras Camargo) followed with 7% of the vote, and Humberto de la Calle, Santos’ chief negotiator with the FARC in Havana and a key author of the 1991 Constitution, with just 2%. Over half of the electorate—53.37%—voted, which is high for Colombia.
Duque and Petro will compete in the final round on June 17. Because President Santos will not be able to complete implementation of the accords before he hands the presidency over to either Duque or Petro in August, whoever assumes power later this year will determine the fate of the peace accords with the FARC.
Duque has sworn to continue Uribe’s legacy, which included brutal counterinsurgency campaigns against the FARC and other guerrilla insurgencies and state support for right-wing paramilitaries. Just last week U.S. diplomatic cables leaked to the New York Times expressed concerns among intelligence officers that Uribe received support from paramilitary-connected drug cartels. Uribe’s brother, Santiago, is accused of running a paramilitary death squad called the Twelve Apostles and currently awaiting trial. Uribe led the successful “No” vote campaign against the plebiscite to ratify the peace accords, and Duque campaigned on his promise to revise—and weaken—the accords.
Duque has called the JEP (the Special Jurisdiction for Peace), set up to adjudicate war crimes, “a monument to impunity,” a reference to the widely held opinion that the guerrillas got off easy. And he has called for several key changes, including the stipulation that ex-combatants cannot participate in politics before serving prison time and that agents of the state be judged in a special tribunal of the Supreme Court, not the JEP, which Robert A. Karl explored in a recent piece for the NACLA Report. In reality, Duque would have little legislative authority to alter the accords—particularly agreements dealing directly with the FARC—and has always supported the demobilization and disarmament of guerrilla insurgents.
Petro, trained as an economist, is a strong supporter of the peace accords and a former guerrilla—he demobilized from the M-19 insurgency in 1990. (The M-19, the April 19th Movement, was a left-wing urban guerrilla movement established in the wake of a corrupt presidential election in 1970. That a former M-19 militant is a viable presidential candidate is worth noting.) For Petro—and the Left more broadly—the peace accords are about much more than the demobilization of guerrilla insurgencies. They are a chance to remake the social contract of the country and include ambitious rural development plans, citizen participation initiatives, and unprecedented provisions for the rights of women, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities, and LGBTQI people. Petro has built a political career opposing uribismo and has promised to honor and expand the peace accords.
Widely represented as a “hard left” candidate, Petro’s Colombia Humana platform is solidly progressive. For Petro, the accords are just a first step in building “peace with social justice,” and has promised to reinstate some of the participatory provisions that were lost in negotiation with the “no” coalition—for example, he proposes giving more power to local governments engaged in the Development Program with a Territorial Focus, a post-conflict rural development plan. Petro inaugurated his second-round campaign by announcing, “What is ahead of us for the next fifteen days is whether Colombia will return to violence or whether Colombia will build an era of peace.”
If Duque—heavily favored to win—assumes power, the already fragile accords will falter and the country will return to right-wing uribismo. A Petro win, on the other hand, would represent an unprecedented national experiment with a progressive, pro-peace government. As Juanita León of La Silla Vacía explained, this election is about “whether the peace accords will be the roadmap for the future of Colombia or whether they will simply be marginal policy guaranteeing that the demobilized don’t return to arms.”
A Divided Left
The vote reflected recent polls and anticipated regional loyalties. The poorest parts of Colombia showed the most support for Petro, while wealthier parts went to Fajardo. Duque won in 23 of 32 departments, and Petro won in just nine. Petro did well on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, and Duque dominated the rural interior, particularly in places threatened by active FARC dissidents, likely reflecting his promise to crack down on illegal armed groups. Fajardo won most major cities, including Bogotá, an embarrassment for Petro, its former mayor, though Petro did win in poor and southern peripheral neighborhoods, and Duque in the wealthiest parts of the city. Despite strong support for Uribe (and Duque) in the eje cafetero (the coffee growing region), Fajardo performed well in Antioquia, suggesting that despite a rhetoric of polarization in Colombia, there is a strong political center.
Fajardo, who ran as the Coalición Colombia (Colombia Coalition) candidate, is widely perceived to be a more business-friendly and moderate candidate than Petro, and his late rise in the polls suggest a move towards the center. Some speculate that more people would have voted for Fajardo if they believed he could win. Fajardo’s close finish behind Petro made him a potential kingmaker, with more than 4.5 million supporters. Though Duque beat Petro by three million, Petro and Fajardo together won almost nine and a half million votes, significantly more than Duque’s seven and a half million—a major win for the pro-peace Left. If unified, they could constitute a credible challenge to Duque.
But just two days after the elections, Fajardo shattered hopes for a pro-peace Left alliance against Duque. Immediately following the first round results, Petro called for Fajardo to “co-govern with us.” Yet Fajardo announced on May 31 that he would vote “en blanco” (in blank), submitting a ballot in the final round but refusing to vote for either candidate. The parties that supported Fajardo—Alianza Verde and Polo Democrático—have both endorsed Petro, though Polo Senator Jorge Robledo announced he will vote in blank. De la Calle announced that he will also vote en blanco, refusing ex-president César Gaviria and his Liberal Party’s endorsement of Duque. De la Calle’s vice-presidential candidate, Clara López, broke ranks with both her party and De la Calle to endorse Petro. (The Conservative Party and the right-wing Cambio Radical also endorsed Duque.) And though the parties that made up Fajardo’s Colombia Coalition (Alianza Verde and Polo Democrático) have both endorsed Petro, there remains the possibility that Fajardo’s voters will vote en blanco, abstain, or even swing to Duque.
On Twitter, Petro wrote that “a blank vote is only a vote for Uribe/Duque... #NoDejesenBlancolaPaz (#Don’tLeavePeaceBlank).” Juan Carlos Rodríguez, professor of political science at the University of the Andes and co-director of the Observatory for Democracy summarized Fajardo and De la Calle’s position: “Voting in blank in the second round is a way of washing one’s hands.”
Now, both Duque and Petro are courting Fajardo’s paisa votes and attempting to sway his more moderate supporters. Between Petro, Fajardo, and De la Calle, 51% of the vote went to progressive and center-left candidates, a notable victory in Colombia. But the results reflect the dilemmas of a divided Left vote: Fajardo fell short of Petro by just 261,558 votes, and would have gone onto the second and final round with just over half of De la Calle's 399,180 votes. The Left and Center vote—split between Petro, Fajardo, and De la Calle—reflects ambivalence and a rising centrism, likely linked to the Right’s successful campaign to frame Petro as an agent of resurgent “Castro-Chavismo.”
A Peace Imperiled
The peace accords were the single most contentious and important issue of the presidential race, and first round voting reflected attitudes about the agreements. In October of 2016, President Santos put the peace agreement with the FARC to a popular vote in a plebiscite to ratify the accords. Widely expected to win, the plebiscite narrowly lost, following an anti-peace campaign by former president Uribe. In 2016, Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize for leading the peace talks.
But his government has failed to implement the vast majority of the accord conditions due to lack of coordination between institutions, the slow release of funds, and lack of political will more broadly. The Territorial Spaces for Training and Reincorporation—rural demobilization zones intended to disarm and consolidate FARC fighters—have been denied promised basic resources, and over half of former combatants have left the zones. Sixty-four ex-combatants and seventeen family members of ex-combatants have been killed since the signing of the peace agreement in November of 2016, likely by paramilitary and criminal bands. Reflecting trends in the 2016 plebiscite vote, the people most historically impacted by the conflict voted to end it: municipalities that voted to ratify the peace accords in the October 2, 2016 plebiscite went to Petro, and municipalities that voted against the accords to Duque. Notably, Duque managed to flip four municipalities that had voted Yes to peace, while Petro didn’t win anywhere that had voted No.
Some have speculated that Duque could soften his position on the accords once in office, especially given his second-round alliance with Gaviria and the pro-peace Liberal Party. Santos came to power as Uribe’s Minister of National Defense, but quickly betrayed Uribe by initiating the successful peace accords with the FARC and the ongoing peace talks with the ELN, Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group. But betrayal seems less likely with Duque, who appears to already be operating independently of Uribe but in line with his values. Crucially, Duque would not need to amend the accords to damage prospects for peace: an uribista government could easily sabotage the deal with the FARC through inaction. The failure of the (ostensibly pro-peace) Santos’ administration to meet even the most basic provisions of the accords does not bode well for implementation under an anti-peace government.
The April 9 arrest of Jesus Santrich, a FARC negotiator in the peace process, has already jeopardized rank-and-file FARC faith in the accords. Santrich, who was guaranteed a congressional seat through the peace deal, is accused of drug trafficking in an investigation led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Despite this, on May 15, former FARC presidential candidate Timoleón Jiménez (Timochenko) affirmed the FARC’s ongoing commitment to the peace accords and promised that they would not return to arms in the event of a Duque win.
Though the FARC has not endorsed a presidential candidate—and open FARC support would harm Petro, already suspected of being a guerrilla sympathizer—ex-combatants and FARC party militants are actively engaged in campaigning for Petro. And this week, perhaps the most famous FARC hostage in Colombian history, Íngrid Betancourt, endorsed Petro, his vice-presidential candidate Ángela Robledo, and Colombia Humana. A former presidential candidate, Betancourt was kidnapped and held for six years before her dramatic rescue in 2008.
Emma Shaw Crane is a doctoral candidate in American Studies in the Department of Social & Cultural Analysis at New York University.